Category Archives: Reviews

NCAA 13 review

I reviewed the really disappointing NCAA 13 for PopMatters. The moneyquote:

It’s clear that barring a massive upgrade in AI development in the next few years, EA’s football series is kind of stuck, a problem largely brought on by the rules of football more so than any failing of the developer. The main issue facing football video games currently is that there are too many players. Each team fields 11 men, but the player only controls one, meaning the outcome of any play is dependent on whether or not your AI wide receiver can get open against AI cornerbacks, for example. There are obviously considerations with regards to play calls—running man-beating passing routes against man coverage and vice versa—but anyone who has ever played an EA football game knows that there are just times when the game decides that you’re not winning. And these problems extend beyond the skill position players: if your offensive linemen are unable to block the defensive line, your play call hardly matters.

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The Splatters review

I reviewed the XBox LIVE Arcade puzzler The Splatters for PopMatters. Moneyquote:

The Splatters is the worst kind of puzzle game: one that doesn’t really feel like a puzzler at all. The mystery behind the game – uncovering how to solve puzzles and feeling out the mechanics so that you can organically learn how to grapple with complex levels—is revealed after the first tutorial: “Oh, it’s like those other games.” Once you’re given all of the excess abilities, there exists only a few guess-and-check moments in levels before the proper strategy becomes abundantly clear. The biggest obstacle is usually the unreliable physics of exploded, cascading goo that doesn’t properly moisturize the objectives (I.e., “bombs,” essentially color-coded fish eggs that need to be adequately saturated).

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Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13 review

I reviewed the new Tiger Woods game over at PopMatters. The takeaway:

Tiger Woods PGA Tour 13’s new swing mechanic, the series’ most dramatic shift to date, makes the game similarly unfun but unfun in a golf sense, not a repetitive one. Gone are the days of mindlessly pulling back the left analog stick and slamming it forward for maximum power. The new swing mechanic relies as heavily on pace and rhythm as it does on basic human dexterity. This shift is akin to the difference between a button-mashing Street Fighter player and someone surgically attacking withTekken 3’s Yoshimitsu.

Transitioning to this new system, especially early on, presents a host of problems. Timing your swing correctly affects your distance and accuracy—to say nothing of putting. As you spend more time with the game, you start to get into a rhythm, but a single missed shot and your round can quickly take a nosedive. Putting, meanwhile, may be the most frustrating aspect of the game. The precision with which you must control your backswing and follow through is frustratingly realistic, but it is also a welcome change to a franchise that has for too long been stuck in neutral.

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Grand Slam Tennis 2 review

It’s been a while, but I wrote a review for PopMatters, this one on Grand Slam Tennis 2 for XBox. The takeaway:

Playing without the fear of the side and endlines makes Grand Slam Tennis 2—and in effect, most tennis games—much more like Checkers than Chess. Defensive shots are a rarity as the ability to return balls on the fly to exact court locations presents little challenge. The game becomes an exercise in tedium: forehand left corner, forehand left corner, backhand right corner. Game, set, match.

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Skyward Sword review

First a caveat: this is the first Zelda game that I’ve played extensively since Wind Waker. Though I don’t think that actually changes much, I do feel it’s a necessary note to make.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is everything that’s brilliant and terrible about the series condensed into possibly its best offering to date. You still control the silent hero Link while trying to save princess (or sister or goddess or whatever form she takes in the various releases) Zelda from some spiritual evil. If you’re looking for innovation in story or writing, Skyward Sword is not it. The most-hyped revelation was the realization of the Wii’s initial promise, that of one-to-one motion with swords, slingshots, etc. But this is really a tool to enable the game’s crowning achievement: level design.

Though it also acts as a governing system for how long you can play Skyward Sword in one sitting, every single environment in the game is a puzzle. Though that may seem common for frequent Zelda players, I’m not just referring to specific dungeons that you’re forced to work your way through. Instead, any progression through the game, be it thematic or physical, is achieved through the solving of a new puzzle. Skyward Sword owes as much to Tomb Raider as it does, say, Ocarina of Time.

As the story goes, Link’s native land Skyloft was floated into the sky centuries ago, distant enough that no one on the floating island town has been to or can even remember earth. Through the forces that be, Zelda is carried away and Link has to descend beyond the clouds to try and save her. Everything on earth is new to Link, so winding forests that, in previous Zelda iterations might just be chock full of baddies, are instead perplexing environments that require specialized tools and techniques. (This alienness allows the introduction of traditional Zelda items/tools–slingshot, bug catcher, bombs–to be truly impactful and realistic.) Not only are the dungeons themselves full of your standard Zelda puzzling fare, but the massive environments leading up to them are similarly taxing.

This is both a good and bad thing. While it adds weight and a sense of purpose to the exploration of these widespread areas, it’s also difficult to put in a significant amount of time in any one sitting. When playing Skyward Sword, you’re always on, which is to say that your brain is being constantly taxed. By the time you arrive at any of the predetermined “dungeons”, you already feel like you’ve done the heavy lifting. Now I get to fight the boss, right? Instead, the dungeons–at least at the point I’ve progressed to, about 16 hours–introduce yet more environmental dynamics to interact with.

This constant relearning and appropriation of your existing tool kit is draining. However, it also speaks to the game’s depth. While the one-to-one swordplay is fun (mostly; I still have significant issues with its response to my motions, causing much frustration and cursing), the most impressive feat is how the game appropriates your tools. Each tool that you earn has an obvious use, but as your immediate surroundings evolve, those tools prove to have more unique functionalities. So while you’re constantly toiling through puzzles with a fairly limited tool kit, it’s a testament to the game designers that none of those puzzles ever feel repetitive.

All of this innovation, combined with the games RPG tendencies, encourages exploration. In previous Zelda games, there were only a few things to do: find rupees, kill bad guys, save Zelda. With the introduction of customizable weapons and tools, thoroughly exploring your environment is no longer reserved for people interested in finding a few Easter eggs. Finding and catching bugs or uncovering new relics act as an incentive to look around. But the exploration is intuitive. Since the entire game is built around puzzles, most exploration is born out of habit: I’m going to have to solve this puzzle eventually, so I’ll complete and interact with all the features of this area. It’s brilliant level design and player interaction that essentially force this exploration.

Ultimately, the puzzling gets a little life-sucking though and you have to put the game down. Whether it’s figuring out what sword swing a particular enemy can’t block or trying to open those oft-gated doors, Skyward Sword is not for the casual gamer, which is why it’s unfortunate that the user interface and discovery of new items is treated like it always has been: like you’re a 12 year old. That’s not enough to really harm the game’s style or enjoyability, and the innovations in level design make Skyward Sword both the most innovative game in the series and its best.

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Battlefield 3 review

Yesterday, EA released the epically hyped Battlefield 3 after months of heavy advertising and a PR battle with existing king of the hill Call of Duty. The hype train leading up to its release was inevitable given the competition from the CoD franchise and its stranglehold on the current console FPS market. And though I was a serious fan of past Call of Duty games, Battlefield 3 makes not only CoD, but all other video games look like toddler toys.

First the easy stuff: Last night, EA was having a ton of trouble with their XBox servers. People weren’t able to play online, so I played the first two missions of the single player. It’s fine. It’s absolutely beautiful but, as the game designers said in an interview a few weeks ago, it’s a tutorial for the multiplayer. It’s pretty dull. I read a review of the single player in which the reviewer said that he kept dying until he figured out exactly what he was supposed to be doing. That’s spot on. There are a lot of sudden attacks/explosions that you just need to be in the proper position for. If you’re not, you die and have to try again from a different position. This gameplay is not what anyone cares about and I’d be surprised if I even finish the single player mode.

As for the multiplayer, the graphics are similarly unparalleled. There is no video game currently on the market (maybe the Forza series) that has graphics anywhere near as beautiful as these. There’s so much detail and subtlety that you can spend entire matches just looking at stuff. The “backgrounds” (about those scare quotes in a second) are stunning. On Operation Firestorm, there are plumes of black smoke rising in the background from bombed out oil refineries. At Caspian Border, there’s a forest fire in the background that looks to engulf the entire map. But you could find something in almost every level to marvel at. There’s no point in listing them all.

The reason I put scare quotes around “backgrounds” is because these levels are basically limitless. The larger, more open levels allow players to use jets, which move so quickly that you’ll often overshoot the level by about 100% (at Caspian Border, you can actually fly through the forest fire that is otherwise unreachable). When you’re in the sky, the levels take on a life of their own. That said, flying is extremely difficult. Any videos of someone successfully flying are really impressive. It’s very, very difficult and often ended with me crossing myself up and nose diving into the ground.

Referring to the levels as limitless may be a misnomer, but in practice they are. The game mode I played the most last night was Conquest. In Conquest, there are either three or four bases/flags that you need to capture and protect. There are essentially two ways to go about this*: get in a tank and follow your teammates to a base that can be locked down, or sneak around the entire edge of the level and try and pick off a base that people don’t expect you to attack. The latter, even in Call of Duty, has always been my preferred option, but I digress. These levels are built to scale and I would guess that running directly from one end of the level to the other unabated would take about four minutes. If you hide for cover and take the game more seriously, it takes close to eight minutes to get from one side to the other. But if you do it properly, you’ll move cover to cover, lay in wait as enemy tanks rumble by, find shelter to hide from enemy planes that might spot you, and avoid enemy contact for the majority of the time. It’s a singular experience unlike any other in gaming.

It’s the pacing of this game that makes it so perfect. When there aren’t any new vehicles at your spawn, it might be a hassle to run for 30 seconds to a minute before even seeing a firefight in the distance, but that’s what gives the game it’s reality. These maps truly feel like war zones. They’re so large that you can be attacked from almost anywhere if you’re not careful. So when you really immerse yourself in the game–checking your cover, supplying cover fire, and methodically moving through the level using front and follow with teammates–it feels real.

It’s cinematic in a way that I never thought imaginable. You feel like you’re in a movie. There are these indescribable moments of jaw-dropping brilliance that just open up to you. So many times, things happen exactly like you would expect they would in real life and it’s something that no other video game has ever accomplished (eg, spotting an enemy tank a few yards away before it spots you and laying prone for cover until it passes).

My most memorable experienced occurred as I was bringing a tank into the heart of a city scape. An enemy jet spotted me and made two swooping passes over my vehicle, unloading on the tank and doing a ton of damage. After the second pass, I realized that I had an aircraft-locking rocket launcher. I got out of the tank and hid by the side of it for cover. I watched as the jet made a swooping turn out in front of me and came back for a third run right over the top of the tank. I locked onto the jet and fired just before it got to me, and watched it explode and crash into the ground right over my head.

Though the size of the levels was initially a problem for me, it soon because the game’s most impressive feature. The same levels on the PC are made for 64 players simultaneously. On consoles, you only play with 24. While the game has made its name on mixed ops (using different classes and vehicles in tandem to dominate positions), freelancing on your own is a heart-pounding experience. There’s nothing worse that hiding out sniping down range when you hear an enemy tank roll up with infantry forces and you’re forced to take cover until its gone and then check the surrounding areas for anyone who might surprise you.

It hit me today why this game, and FPS in general, will be/are so popular. For most gamers, autonomy is key. This is what development companies like Bethesda thrive on and why open-world games have become so popular. But the more functionality you offer people, the more limiting it becomes (eg, Why does Townsperson X always say the same thing? Why can’t I blow up this building? etc). If you give gamers free reign and call something a sandbox game, they will inevitably push those limits and question why they exist.

FPS are unique because they are designed to allow the player to perform any action that he might need to in the existing situation. You’re out of ammo and need to pull out a pistol? There’s one available. Like that dead guy’s gun better? You can take it. But there were clear limitations. For example, if you’re getting shot by a sniper hiding out in a building up the street, the best you could do was hope to shoot him before he saw you. Battlefield 3‘s Frostbite engine gives you another option, the kind of option you would logically use in that scenario: explode the sniper’s cover with a rocket launcher. The game allows you to interact with the environment in every way you can imagine. And the size and scope of the levels puts you in a real world setting where logical strategies apply.

In my many years playing video games, I can confidently say that Battlefield 3‘s multiplayer is the greatest gaming experience I’ve ever encountered. The breadth of landscape, abilities, vehicles, strategies, and game modes combined with the game’s physics engine and solid gunplay create the most realistic digital experience to date. If this isn’t the Uncanny Valley, it doesn’t exist.

*There’s a third that I’m not very good at, and it involves teaming up with another friendly jet and having both people circle a base. It’s really cool watching these things swoop in and out to protect a base. I only saw it happen once and it was against my team, but it was spectacular to watch.

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Dark of the Moon: The best-ever third act of an action film

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is incomprehensible visual diarrhea. It may also be brilliant. I have long been a proponent of the Michael Bay directed Transformers series, not because they’re good movies or because I’m too stupid to tell otherwise, but because these movies blow things up in a more innovative and visually captivating way than basically any movie ever made. As well they should: These are giant alien robots that can transform from car to humanoid in the blink of an eye, and come equipped with plasma canons, Maverick-and-Goose-flown heat seeking missiles, and random medieval weapons that can slice through just about anything. The third in the series is ultimately no different in this regard, but the paths the movies take to achieve this are divergent.

The first movie had a lot of setup to do. You had to get alien robots to earth, have the humans discover them, and have a typical hostage/terrorist/baddies-takeover cum redemption plot. There was a neurotic government agent and fat black guy thrown in for laughs, but terrible acting aside, the first Transformers film was not unlike most other action movies of the last decade.

The second film was a disaster of epic proportions, in large part because it was two romantic comedies pigeonholed into one action movie: Sam Witwicky loves hot girl and Sam Witwicky loves giant robots. But it was mostly a failure because rather than sticking around populated, American cities where good and bad robots can hide in plain site, they arbitrarily added a teleporter to the movie and decided that fighting on top of a pyramid was more fun. It wasn’t.

Dark of the Moon is so confoundingly constructed that it can hardly be classified as a single, discernable movie. It begins with a handful of tangentially related storylines that all feel like different ways the writers wanted to start the film. Segment by segment passed and I often found myself thinking, “Hm, that’s an interesting premise for a movie. I’d go see that.” only to remember that I was sitting in a theater watching that movie: essentially, the first act of the movie is a handful of failed movie trailers with little or no relation to one another. Occasionally, a moment from a prior segment would be referenced later, but for almost no purpose.

Worse still, the opening hour and 45 minutes of the film are nearly bereft of real action scenes. A transformer will pop up here and there, and the occasional skirmish happens, but for the most part, the first two acts of the film are structured entirely around Sam Witwicky, his lack of a job, feelings of inadequacy, and his too-hot-for-him girlfriend. It’s interminable. I sat in the theater of the movie I’ve been waiting a year to see and thought to myself, “This is the worst movie I’ve ever seen.”

Then the unthinkable (and glorious) happens: Michael Bay tosses out every single bit of plot and character development for the last act of the film and creates (in 3D, at least) the greatest 45 minutes of action ever put to film.

There’s a literal hard stop at the end of the second act. The screen goes completely black, followed by an Inception BONG and everything you thought you knew or were watching is ceremoniously burned. You transport from Washington DC to Chicago in the blink of an eye and without explanation, random robots and creatures appear unrelated to both the movie you’ve been watching and (to my knowledge) Transformers folklore, and all of the character development the writers forced down your throat for the prior 100 minutes is disregarded in lieu of watching cool shit happen. And I mean endlessly: for close to 45 minutes (I’m approximating), every single moment on the screen is a visual cacophony of brilliance. Things happen and they happen for a reason and you understand why they’re happening and you’re no longer watching Transformers: Dark of the Moon so much as you’re watching War of the Worlds and who cares what happens to who, I just want to see the Chicago skyline flattened and on fire.

The last 45 minutes of Dark of the Moon don’t even resemble–and I mean, at all; in no way, shape, or form–the prior two acts. It’s like Bay realized that the reason people love Transformers is not for the forced storylines and hot chicks but because they’re giant fucking robots in robot gangs with plasma canons. It’s like watching the Barksdales and Stanfields fight but instead of killing innocent black children peering down from windows above, they’re blowing up cities.

And the 3D–oh, the 3D–is so good that they don’t waste time scaring you with explosions or making it look like something is coming right at you. No, you’re in the movie itself. You’re jumping out of planes and being assaulted by an evil robot gang despite the fact that you’re supposed to be just an innocent kid watching from a window above the fight.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon isn’t for everyone, and by that I mean people unwilling to disregard plot, character, and storyline for the chance to have a seizure in a public setting. But as far as action and beautifully done visuals, this movie, at least the final act, is without competition.

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